Running ultras is an individual game – other people have experience that you can listen to, other people have race times you can admire, kit you can covet and an arse you can follow with a smile on your face but the truth is (aside from the arse following) there’s no right or wrong solution because we are all unique. One persons ultra methodology is no better than another’s.
One thing I get asked on a semi regular basis is ‘what should I be eating on ultras?’ Now there’s a can of worms… It’s taken me three years and about 30 marathons/ultra marathons to get the right balance of race day energy. And this is how I did it
Liverpool Marathon My first marathon distance. No water, no food, 3 gels and I fought off the urge to vomit, pass out and shit myself to finish in a respectable first marathon. Lessons Learned? Hydrate and take a dump prior to the beginning of any bigger distance event.
White Cliffs 50 Six months later I took part in my first ultra and I admit I still knew very little about nutrition or hydration. I went to the race with untested gels of all descriptions, a very large pack of super buttery Sainsbury’s flapjacks, big bags of jelly babies, fizzy string, a shed load of kinder chocolate and about 4 quids worth of penny sweets, there was even space in my OMM pack for a couple of bottles of Lucozade sport. No wonder my back ached. The flapjacks worked brilliantly as they were quite soft, a little chewy and very tasty but they were big and cumbersome and I was carrying four of them. Everything else was a mistake, the aid stations were quite well stocked and I didn’t need to load myself up. The problem was I didn’t learn from my nutritional mistakes here and I’d repeat these mistakes such as eating Kinder chocolate and fizzy strings for many more ultras.
During the next few races though I started reducing the quantity I would carry, carrying isotonic liquid was replaced with tablets that I could mix on the move. The flapjacks sadly fell by the wayside and so eventually did the jelly babies and the kinder chocolate but it was still a work in progress. Sandwiches fell apart in my pack, nuts were difficult to eat and malt loaf while brilliant would leave my mouth feeling dry or worse claggy.
The next thing to go were the gels, I realised that I didn’t need or want them. They did nothing for me in terms of positive effects they simply left my stomach jumping through hoops and making me shit through the eye of a needle. However, I found that Clif shot blocks didn’t have a negative effect and sometimes make it into my kit.
TP100 What really worked for me was what I did at the Thames Path 100, which had been a work in progress for the first few months of 2015 and trialled at the SDW50 a month earlier.
- Chocolate Nourishment Milkshake
- 500ml Lucozade Sport
- A big pre race visit to the loo
In the bag
- Cashew Nuts
- Mini individually wrapped Reece’s Cups
- Sainsbury’s (cheap and salty) chicken nuggets
- Sainsbury’s soft (pre made) tacos
- Whitworth Shots
- Fruit string
- Isotonic tablets (1/4s) for 150ml Salomon soft flask
On the route
- Coca Cola
- Orange slices
- Reece’s Cups
- Nourishment Milkshake
- Lucozade Sport
But what did I actually consume? The answer to that is pretty much everything. I need savoury options when I run, so the chicken nuggets (breaded) and the soft tacos provided the perfect hit, the nuggets were especially high in salt and I felt these would be a good salt replacement. The tacos were soft and delicious plus importantly easy to eat. I ate these mainly in the first 70 miles, by after this point I simply wasn’t very hungry anymore.
The Biltong I used as a way of reminding me to chew and keep my mouth moist while at the same time eating something. It’s not as easy to eat as say a jelly baby but it keeps well, doesn’t disintegrate in your race vest and tastes pretty damn good, plus you don’t get sick of it as with sweet foods . I ate an entire pack of Biltong over the course of the TP100 and consumed the last of it at about 85 miles – the last point at which I ate anything.
I then added in the Reece’s cups, salted cashews and various fruity bits to give me quicker shots of energy when I was feeling low. The chocolate was especially good at the night time section when I needed something comforting and the undoing of individually wrapped chocolate meant I was tasking my fingers with a mental challenge.
At the checkpoints I drank Coca Cola exclusively because it’s bloody awesome when you need a hit and I ate none of the food provided other than the occasional orange slice (but not too much because of the problems of acid) and houmous at one of the later aid stations. Where I picked up drop bags (2) I had both Nourishment milkshake and Lucozade sport, the milkshake offered respite from cold watery liquids and the Lucozade have me a glucose hit!
It was a combination of consistency and variety though that really saw me through in terms of my eating strategy. For me I’ve got to eat and drink early in a race or its all over by about 10 miles, if my mouth gets dry and I can’t swallow I never recover from that.
Learning to avoid too much isotonic fluid and disposing of gels in favour of real food has reduced my stomach problems on the trail too (with the exception of the Saltmarsh 75). But the realisation that endurance running with real food was right for me was the thing that has made such a huge difference. And now I’m infinitely better prepared to run and race secure in the knowledge that I have the basis of a working food strategy.
What I would say to you and in answer to the question ‘what should I be eating on ultras?’ It’s a case of whatever fits with you. But trial things, different combinations, different flavours, textures and quantities. No two runners are the same and so you’ll find your ultra culinary journey almost as interesting as the races you do.
But over to you, what do you eat? Should I be trying Tailwind? Am I missing out on something with gels? Interested to hear what you’re doing. Happy running!